Are abandoned mines affecting our drinking water or could they soon?
EPA to initiate a preliminary Superfund assessment for three Utah sites, including Cottonwood canyons, following settlement over Gold King Mine spill
SALT LAKE CITY — There are hundreds of thousands of abandoned hard rock mining sites or features scattered throughout the West, and federal and state officials are nowhere close to identifying those that potentially pose a hazard to drinking water.
The Gold King Mine spill in Colorado, which released a torrent of ugly mustard-colored pollutants that contaminated waterways in three states and the Navajo Nation, was a visually graphic reminder from five years ago of how much of a threat and expense these abandoned mines pose.
Hundreds of legal claims were filed against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — which had oversight of the mine’s remediation when it breached — with Utah settling its lawsuit just this month with the federal agency over Gold King Mine.
In the agreement, the EPA said it would initiate a preliminary Superfund assessment for a trio of sites in Utah, including two former mining districts in Big Cottonwood and Little Cottonwood canyons, which are home to hundreds of legacy mines scattered on a patchwork of both public and private land.
Their existence in the canyons is an uncomfortable and threatening specter, since the Wasatch Canyons provide 60% of the Salt Lake Valley’s drinking water, hailed as one of the most pristine resources because it comes from a natural reservoir of snowpack and rushes from treatment to tap in just 24 hours.
But mine debris and waste rock in those canyons have already created impairment problems for aquatic life due to the contaminants of copper and cadmium, the latter of which is a carcinogen. Zinc has also been determined to be a threat to aquatic life in Little Cottonwood Canyon.
Erica Gaddis, director of the Utah Division of Water Quality, said the standard for cold water fisheries is much stricter because the animals exist in the water 24/7. The contaminants, she stressed, are not testing at levels of concern for drinking water standards.
Ticking time bomb?
But some people fear it is only a matter of time that the legacy waste from hard rock mining in the canyons will filter into the creeks at such levels that drinking water is compromised beyond the ability for treatment plants to handle, whether it is the water itself or washed down sediment.
“I am concerned this is a problem that has been ignored for too long,” said Salt Lake County Councilman Richard Snelgrove.
“There are a lot of questions and solutions are long overdue. I am pleased that the EPA is looking at this as a potential Superfund cleanup site. It is obvious that not all is well in that canyon.”
Snelgrove said he is an avid hiker and especially likes to venture into the more remote Cardiff area in Big Cottonwood Canyon.
“On a personal level I cherish these mountains. They are some of our crown jewels, not only for Salt Lake County but the state of Utah.”
He was up there three years ago and was startled to see abandoned mine waste and rusty colored water trickling over it, eventually winding its way into Big Cottonwood Creek.
“Rusty water comes out of those mine shafts, flows over these tailings that nothing will grow on and then flows into our drinking water for Salt Lake County.”
The property owner is alleged to be Salt Lake City, which in its watershed plan in 1999 identified metal contamination from legacy mine sites as a problem that merited a remediation plan to be put into place by 2001 — nearly 20 years ago.
That plan is not in place.
“Salt Lake City has some explaining to do on their property. They need to clean up their trash heap,” Snelgrove said.
Laura Briefer, director of the Salt Lake City Division of Public Utilities, said what Snelgrove is seeing is likely waste rock, not tailings. And while the city owns chunks of property in the Cardiff area, Briefer said she could not say if the property Snelgrove is referencing is city-owned without doing a site visit.
“We don’t have tailings in the Wasatch Canyons,” she said, adding there are mine tunnels that may be leaching water, but their risk in Big Cottonwood Canyon has yet to be assessed and drinking water standards are being met.
Yet despite the watershed plan from 1999 dictating a mitigation effort in place for the canyons, Salt Lake City doesn’t appear close to knowing the extent of the problem on the very property it owns.
“I am not aware of Salt Lake City owning property with mine waste in Cardiff or in Little Cottonwood Canyon. We would need to survey the property to understand and confirm property ownership,” Briefer said, even though state mining officials told the agency city- owned property had mine openings in Cardiff.
Briefer said the city still needs to confirm what the state agency informed them.
The EPA announcement that it would initiate Superfund site investigations at legacy mining sites in the canyons came as a surprise to Briefer, she said, but the city welcomes the review.
“I think this is a good outcome to the settlement,” she said. “But often these investigations do not lead to a Superfund assessment. We would be surprised if it did.”
But Snelgrove said there needs to be greater action to remediate these sites in more remote areas that may pose a risk.
“The mine openings are still open the way they were left 100 years ago. When it comes to health and safety issues, that is not a good excuse,” he said. “The magnitude is enormous and the consequences are enormous, so we can’t have the attitude of, ‘Nothing to see here, just move along.’”
Mark Allen, founder of Protect and Preserve American Fork Canyon and the executive director of the American Fork Canyon Alliance, agrees with Snelgrove.
“It is kind of a termite problem. If there is a barn burning down, everyone races to put out the fire. But if a termite is eating at the foundation, it is out of sight and out of mind.”
Tackling the termites
Allen, frustrated over heavy metals contamination at former mine sites in American Fork Canyon, petitioned the EPA to conduct a site assessment of their risks on the heels of the Tibble Fork Dam release in August of 2016.
A $7.3 million rehabilitation project to drain the lake inadvertently triggered a large release of metals-laden sediment into the north fork of the American Fork River.
The result was a significant fish kill and metals pollution that threatened many downstream communities.
Allen said he believes the Tibble Fork release was many times more severe than Gold King Mine, but because it wasn’t as visual with the yellowish iron oxides in Colorado, and was contained in one geographical area, it didn’t garner the same attention.
“(Gold King) was an extremely visual event of pollution. It was so graphic,” Allen said.
Gaddis said the Tibble Fork release has largely been settled, with monitoring that has gone on in subsequent years showing concentrations of contaminants at levels that adhere to federal standards.
The EPA, at Allen’s request, is continuing to review the upstream threats posed by legacy mines that through streams and creeks deposit the metals in sediment that can be washed downstream.
Ryan Dunham, the EPA’s site assessment manager for the American Fork Canyon review, said the agency concluded the mine sites did not warrant a large scale cleanup, although another branch of the EPA is continuing to work with the state and private property owners such as Snowbird to mitigate recreational threats.
Signage and fencing have been put up to keep ATV enthusiasts off the tailings and to warn of potential exposure.
Snowbird voluntarily implemented its own program to address issues at Mary Ellen Gulch, is conducting sampling and will be granted a water quality pollution discharge permit for the site — at the resort’s request — which adds another layer of regulatory oversight.
Gaddis said that particular permit program where property owners can be identified and there is active work on the property will roll out in the future under guidance from the EPA.
She added that one of the biggest hurdles in addressing mine waste is mapping the sites, identifying the owners and determining the priority at which they should be mitigated.
A 2020 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office explored the breadth of the problem, uncovering some sobering statistics that should give one pause.
- The Bureau of Land Management estimates that based on current staffing and resources, it will take 500 years for the agency to complete an inventory of abandoned hard rock mines and features on its land.
- The EPA estimates that based on current databases there are more than a half million abandoned hard rock mining sites on BLM, National Park Service and Forest Service lands.
- In 13 Western states that include Utah, the inventory puts abandoned mine sites at about 246,000 within their borders, but estimates are likely that the number is at 620,000.
- As of July 2019, the actual environmental hazard costs of the 25 most expensive mining and mineral processing sites ranged from $50 million to $583 million per site, and the EPA has been working on some of these for more than 20 years.
The costs are staggering to the federal government, to states, to private property owners.
EPA spent $2.9 billion through fiscal years 2008 through 2017 to identify, clean up and monitor hazards at abandoned hard rock mines. The 13 Western states included in the report spent a collective $117 million in nonfederal funds during the same time period, with California, Colorado and Idaho spending the bulk of that — 86%, according to the Government Accountability Office report.
The EPA said to its knowledge, no federal agencies or the states have a comprehensive dataset that could provide the extent of the problem associated with what’s called “mine influenced waters” throughout the country or in the West. Those waters generally contain dissolved metals or metalloids which may include lead, copper, silver, manganese, cadmium, iron, zinc and mercury, among others.
It added that elevated concentrations of these metals in surface water and groundwater can eliminate their use as drinking water or aquatic habitat.
Additionally, through its Superfund program, the EPA tracks approximately 500 hard rock mining and/or mineral processing sites across the country, which represents less than 0.1% of the abandoned hard rock mining sites.
Against that backdrop, Allen said he believes more needs to be done.
“Kennecott has worked hard to clean up what they own, but that mindset needs to move up to the canyons,” he said. “Nobody has budgets to clean up our watersheds so they just pretend it is not an issue. ... It is like playing pin the tail on the donkey. Nobody wants to be the donkey.”
Gaddis said her division has been working closely with the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining to launch an inventory later this year that will specifically work to document discharging mines in the state of Utah, with numbers that are not known at present.
”After the Gold King Mine spill happened, we got a lot of inquiries if this were problematic in Utah,” said Steve Fluke, administrator over the mining division’s Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program.
“There is not a comprehensive inventory in this state or frankly any other state. ... But there are not a lot of flowing mines in the state because it is so dry. There are naturally more in the Wasatch. In the Wasatch, we have noticed mines that have some pretty significant flows.”
The work done by the mining division thus far has revealed 29 mines discharging water or mine waste in the Wasatch Mountains, but it is not conclusive. Overall, Fluke said there are an estimated 16,000 hazardous mine openings in Utah — counted as a hole in the ground greater than 10 feet deep — of which about 6,500 have been closed.
Fluke said he noticed two collapsed mine adits, or what appear to be, while hiking in Cardiff that he brought to the attention of other state agencies and the EPA.
“I would not want to say they are ticking time bombs waiting for a Gold King Mine incident, but they need to be looked into,” he said. “Who knows what it would take to break them?”
Gaddis agreed the abandoned mines in the Wasatch Canyons pose potential problems.
“Certainly the discharging mines in the Wasatch where we have impaired water quality, that is a concern for aquatic life,” she said.
Beyond inventory challenges and limited budgets, Gaddis said states encounter mine contamination instances that don’t rise to the level of federal intervention at a heightened level under the Clean Water Act.
American Fork Canyon, for example, didn’t warrant cleanup action under federal standards, with the EPA site assessment manager adding that sampling in the years after the Tibble Fork release demonstrate good water quality overall.
The GAO notes that until the 1970s, mine operators were not required to remediate the land after a mine’s resources had been exhausted, so they could just walk away.
While government entities and conservation groups, for example, may want to step in to initiate a cleanup, that means assuming liability — and those stringent liability rules hinder voluntary efforts.
Worries over liability prompted the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest Service to express concern over any proposed land trades after it identified private lands involved in the deal that contained legacy mine sites. A Forest Service memo from 2019 said the agency would not acquire any lands in the Wasatch Canyons with mine tunnels or parcels with waste rock piles greater than a half-acre in size.
The exit of the Forest Service from those portions of the swap, which was part of a proposed federal designation, was a setback for negotiations.
Forest Supervisor Dave Whittekiend said abandoned hard rock mines are a problem in the forest.
“The Cottonwoods and American Fork is where we have had the biggest issue with contamination of heavy metals,” he said.
Remediation has been encouraged through something called the good Samaritan program in which the EPA enters into settlement agreements with volunteer parties willing to do cleanup work without taking on the liability.
The administrative guidance, some critics say, is not strong enough to ward off liability under the Clean Water Act so it has its limitations absent a narrowly tailored federal legislative fix.
But so far, the EPA has entered into three settlement agreements that did not require a Clean Water Act permit and is currently working with a good Samaritan on a Colorado abandoned mine for potential remediation.
Snelgrove said it is imperative agencies and people work together to solve the mine waste problems in the canyons and conquer these hurdles.
The councilman, who represents all county residents through his at-large seat, said Salt Lake County has to be one of those entities doing more. Earlier this year, when the county updated and adopted its general plan, which includes issues needed to be tackled in the canyons, Snelgrove voted against it.
His objections? He said it did not adequately address canyon threats such as wildfire risk and mine waste remediation.
“My concern was raised two or three years ago when I hiked the Cardiff area and it was accelerated with the EPA announcement of possible Superfund designation,” he said.
“If the attitude prevails of there is nothing to see here and we kick the can down the road — instead of it being a problem for 1 million people in this valley, it will be a problem for 2 million people in the decades to come — and it will be a problem for our children and grandchildren.”